The Final Word: Too early for big statements but Sheffield United could need a refresh
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If a team loses twice or even three times at the start of a campaign, they are said to be in crisis. Should a player suffer a temporary loss of form, or fail to hit the same heights they achieved the season before, then they’re ‘done’, ‘finished’ or ‘complacent’ - everyone who follows the beautiful game is familiar with the language and how these situations develop.
On Thursday, 72 hours after losing to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United return to action when they face Burnley in a tricky EFL Cup second round tie. Coming so soon after being beaten by Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, the match represents an opportunity to enter their next Premier League assignment - at Aston Villa next week - on a high rather than hoping to avoid a third straight defeat. Remember the match at Turf Moor must be settled on the night. There is no chance, even some though statisticians might like to pretend otherwise, of it ending in a draw.
Still, although Chris Wilder was right not to read too much into the outcome of Monday evening’s game against Wolves - or the manner in which it came about - he will privately acknowledge there are lessons to be learned. The first one is obvious - his players need to defend better and make more sensible decisions. Both of the visitors goals’ - scored in the fourth and sixth minutes - were great finishes but wholly preventable, with Jack O’Connell and John Lundstram both taking wrong options before Raul Jiminez caressed the ball beyond Aaron Ramsdale and Romain Saiss inexplicably being allowed to head home unchallenged from a corner. The good thing is, on the evidence of last term, we know Lundstram and O’Connell have the mental and the physical capabilities to do better. Likewise, those tasked with preventing Saiss from making such a clean connection with Pedro Neto’s set-piece.
It must also be remembered, however, that Wolves are genuine contenders for a top six finish - or maybe even higher - after adding Fabio Silva, a £35m signing from Porto, to a squad already containing the likes of Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Daniel Podence, who on the evidence of his performance at Bramall Lane now appears properly acclimatised to the demands of the English game.
“How on earth can I answer that? We’ve only played one game,” Wilder replied, when asked by a journalist after the match if Nuno’s men could secure a Champions League berth. He was right, it was a strange question to ask at such an early stage of the fixture programme. But, if they can avoid injuries and suspensions, they look well equipped to challenge before, in all probability given the spending power at the top end of the division, falling just short.
“I always regarded them as a Premier League club in waiting, even when they weren't one,” Wilder had acknowledged ahead of kick-off. And he was right, with Neves and Diogo Jota, previously of Atletico Madrid, both unveiled before they reached the highest level.
There is no shame in losing to Wolves. They are, and not even the sight of United finishing ninth last term should be allowed to mask this, way ahead in terms of their PL development. Not to mention funded by a Chinese conglomerate which, despite supposedly being left brassic by coronavirus, was still able to find the money to purchase one of Europe’s most talked about young talents and resist serious interest in Jiminez.
But United should be disappointed that they effectively gifted them a two goal headstart - an act which, to all intents and purposes, wrecked a week’s worth of preparation and made it impossible to truly judge, although one suspects they would, if Wilder’s side requires extra speed in order to trouble the PL’s more organised rearguards. Trying to accurately assess United’s strengths and weaknesses following a busy transfer window became impossible the moment Saiss pounced.
After recruiting six new players this summer - a lack of genuine pace in the central attacking areas demonstrating why a seventh is expected to follow shortly - the trip to Lancashire provides a chance for Wilder to begin road testing some of the players he believes can plug the gaps he identified in his squad’s skill set during one of the most chaotic seasons in history. Oliver Burke might be short on minutes after a disappointing spell with West Bromwich Albion but possesses the pace and power to reinvigorate United’s attack. Ethan Ampadu, despite ostensibly being signed to provide competition at the back, has the passing range and physicality to freshen up a midfield which has barely changed since the beginning of the 2018/19 campaign - when United won promotion from the Championship.
“Oliver’s career with us will start at Burnley,” Wilder confirmed during his inquest into events against Wolves. It is perfectly possible, and indeed reasonable, to put forward an argument that Burke and Ampadu could have been introduced during the closing stages of United’s meeting with Wolves. But Wilder will be understandably reluctant to break up a starting eleven which has done so much to put the club back on the map after spending more than a decade in the wilderness.
However, if United keep repeating the same mistakes which undermined them against Wolves, or Burke, Ampadu and possibly even Sander Berge impress at Burnley, then he will be forced to do so. Because there is no room for sentiment in professional sport. Particularly at elite level.